Early Math Teachers Celebrate ‘Critical Thinking, Not Correct Answers’

With math literacy a must for most jobs in our knowledge economy, Secretary Duncan has called math teachers “our nation-builders of the future.” Yet, just 40 percent of 4th-graders and 35 percent of 8th-graders are proficient in math, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Playing Games at Diego School

Student Richard Mitchell III and his dad, Richard Mitchell Jr. enjoy a math game that uses the Candy Land board game with kindergarten teacher Heather Gustafson during a Family Game Evening at Jose de Diego Community Academy.

Aimed at increasing young students’ proficiency in math, Chicago’s Erikson Institute is transforming how teachers in pre-K through 3rd grade approach mathematics lessons through a research-based training funded by a five-year, $5 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Development grant awarded by ED in 2010.  i3 “Development” grants support new and high-potential practices to improve student learning, and pairs that support with funding to evaluate the impact of the practices.

Through Erikson’s Early Mathematics Education Project, teachers are trained to lead “classrooms that celebrate critical thinking, not correct answers,” according to Erikson Senior Instructor Rebeca Itzkowich. For this i3 grant, teachers at eight public elementary schools in Chicago are participating in the professional development, which will ultimately support more than 4,500 students each year.

The project’s professional development includes learning labs, individualized coaching, school-based learning groups, and classroom implementation. Erikson’s professional development model produced almost three additional months of mathematics learning during a school year, in comparison to a matched contrast group, and helped teachers narrow the math achievement gap before children entered elementary school.

These new strategies fueled a new energy around math lessons for teacher Michelle Quinton and her 2nd graders at Federico Garcia Lorca Elementary School in Chicago.

“Students’ attitudes have been extremely different. They are excited. They are verbal.  They are expressing themselves in new ways.  They now feel success where they hadn’t before,” said Quinton, who participated in Erikson training throughout the 2011-2012 school year.

Some of Quinton’s new practices have more to do with what she doesn’t do, than what she does. For example, when pupils struggle with problems, she often steps aside to let them work out solutions with their classmates rather giving them quick answers.

“Kids hearing it from me doesn’t always work. Kids hearing it from other kids has been a huge success,” she said.

Recognizing that kids learn differently and don’t respond equally well to common math processes, Erikson’s training also filled teachers’ “toolboxes” with multiple calculation methods for math operations.

“For different kids, certain algorithms make more sense and are more comfortable; it’s like different shoes for different people,” said Itzkowich. “We all have different shortcuts to get to the same place.”

While teacher training to improve instruction is the heart of the project, family help outside of school is vital. To ensure that math reinforcement was successful, Erikson took into account the realities of modern family life, said Itzkowich.

“We had to find ways that parents felt successful supporting their kids’ mathematics learning that are pleasurable and can be incorporated into their home life,” she said, noting that after long days at work, “parents often have a hard enough time just making dinner, getting their kids to eat and brush their teeth.”

Using items that many families already had in their homes — like beans, dice and board games such as Candy Land — Erikson faculty members provide teachers with simple games that engage young students in mathematical learning and understanding in a fun way.  Teachers, in turn, shared these activities with their students and parents at “Family Game Evenings” during the school year.

“Parents left the classrooms feeling like ‘I never thought this had so much mathematical  possibilities, this is fun and I can definitely  do this,’” said Itzkowich.

Erikson Institute is one of 72 organizations awarded funding by ED in the first two years of the i3 program, which supports the development and scaling of ambitious, effective practices that improve student achievement. The program encourages school districts, nonprofit organizations and local partners with a record of achievement to work together on innovative efforts. Applicants must have a history of closing achievement gaps, improving student achievement, increasing high school graduation rates, and/or increasing college enrollment and completion rates. Awards for 2012 will be announced later this year.

Julie Ewart is the director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office

2 Comments

  1. As a former elementary school mathematics specialist, I believe that first of all, elementary school teachers must understand mathematics themselves. A professional development project to improve teachers’ knowledge, skills and attitude toward mathematics is great. When teachers understand the subject, they can better focus on student learning and engage students in activities that will help them to understand mathematical concepts. This must be an excellent project.

    Dr. Cathine Garner-Gilchrist

Comments are closed.